Viewpoint by Anna Stuart, Vice President

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Atlantic Canadians love talking about government. Certainly, the past year provided lots of fodder for debate. From the continued courage of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Premier,to the challenges of Nova Scotia’s first NDP government,to New Brunswick’s dramatic shift in direction on utility ownership and fiscal management, there has been much to discuss.

Such developments influence not only our view of government, but also our perceptions of the public service’s employment brand. Last spring, Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette conducted a survey of approximately 300 individuals to learn more about these perceptions. What we found raised some interesting issues for consideration.

Participants said they see distinct differences between public and private sector employment. For example, they identified competent leadership, open communication, integrity, and clarity of mission and vision as fundamentals of good workplaces. Yet public service scored poorly in competent leadership and open communication. When asked to compare careers in both sectors, respondents said the public sector offers more security, work-life balance, and training and development opportunities, and a more open attitude toward hiring minority and disabled persons. In contrast, they said the private sector offers more financial rewards and challenging work.

If the supply of talent were to remain constant over the next decade, and if public service retirements and restructuring resulted in a predictable, steady departure of civil servants, such misperceptions would not matter much. Yet high rates of retirement are forecast. Add a shrinking labour pool, and aggressive recruitment by the private sector, and the integrity of the public sector’s employment brand – and its capacity to attract and retain strong leaders – becomes critical. Given the disproportionate influence of public sector employment and public policy on the region’s economies, the situation is particularly pressing in Atlantic Canada.

This year, the Canadian Navy, one of the region’s largest employers, is marking its 100th anniversary. This milestone is a perfect opportunity to focus on re-shaping the public sector’s employment brand. Here are some easy and effective ideas we can adopt to achieve this goal.

Change the dialogue one person at a time.

Robbie Shaw, President of the IWK Health Centre Foundation, has spent 22 years in the private sector and another 22 in public sector leadership roles. In his experience,public sector managers typically deal with more complex issues, and are harder working, brighter, and more motivated. Conversely, managers in the private sector are more loyal and conservative, yet less engaged. By sharing such perspectives, we can stimulate dialogue about the differences and shift the dialogue about public sector work one person at a time.

Engage champions – private and public.

When General Rick Hillier (Ret.) spoke at Atlantic Business Magazine's 2010 Top 50 CEO Awards, he championed public service. That presentation positively influenced the brand perceptions of some of Atlantic Canada’s most successful and influential business leaders. Although few of us can speak with his experience and passion, our words can make a difference in our sphere of influence as champions of public service.

Increase the visibility of public sector leaders and professionals.

You can probably name several Atlantic Canadian corporate leaders you would happily follow. You may not know them personally, but their profiles as company ambassadors create the impression that it would be great to work with them. No doubt, private sector leaders have more channels to build visibility. Yet, public sector leaders and professionals can enhance their profiles by participating in community boards, charitable events, business functions and professional organizations. In doing so, they can have a positive impact on the public sector’s employment brand.

Network with the private sector.

Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement and Rotary Club events offer opportunities to talk about public sector work, and work skills, in a different perspective.

Encourage exchanges or secondments between sectors.

Nothing changes how you think more than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Exchanges and secondments between the public and private sector afford both employers and employees a better understanding of the sectors’ similarities and differences.

Use recruitment as an ambassadorial opportunity.

Candidates for public sector positions judge organizations in the same way that they themselves are evaluated. Professional and efficiently run competitions that provide clear, comprehensive information about the organization, position, and process foster long-lasting and positive impressions of the organization and its leadership.

I know public sector leaders are already using some of these suggestions to shift the employment brand. I would be delighted to hear about your experiences. Send me an e-mail (astuart@kbrs.ca) to tell me what has worked for you.

Anna Stuart is a Vice-President at Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading integrated human capital solutions provider. Anna has provided recruitment, strategic and operational advisory services to public sector, industry and family business throughout Atlantic Canada.

Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Managing Partner
902.424.1144